Learning about commoning through open source software

Natural resource commons have long been an organic part of human existence: a community sharing and using a natural resource in a way that’s beneficial to all including the environment. One example is a community of fishers who live near a lake or river and have made their living off it for generations. The body of water may also be central to their culture and customs.

Many of us living in highly urban settings might not have much experience of being part of a natural resource commons. But if you have ever used open source software, you have in fact dipped into another kind of commons – a digital commons.

Communities behind open source applications often take part in digital commoning. The second logo is Tux, a general symbol of Linux.

This blog is made with WordPress, a content management system using which you can build websites and blogs. WordPress is one of the most popular and successful open source applications: it’s been estimated that 25% of the world’s websites run on WordPress. The WordPress software not only comes free of cost but gives the user rights to modify as they please at the code level. The software is maintained and improved by a worldwide community of programmers. Some do it as part of their day job and some do it in their spare time. So right now, you are reading something that is the product of digital commoning.

While it’s easy to set up a basic WordPress blog, if you want to use the full power of WordPress for your website in the long run, it’s best to host it yourself on a server. And you’re responsible for your WordPress installation by learning the ropes as you go along. You may need to think and act like a commoner, not just a user.

The ‘user’ is a standard figure in software. A typical user wants to get something done with a software application. They may not care how it gets done or the philosophy behind the application.

But not much has been said about who a ‘commoner’ might be in the digital world. This person isn’t necessarily a software expert or developer, and at the same time they are not as detached from the workings and principles of the software application as a typical user. They recognize that software is a big part of their lives, so there’s more to consider about software than its utilitarian aspect. What about software freedom, licensing, privacy, and security? A digital commoner cares about these things and often looks to open source software as a result.

The flip side is the increased responsibility and sometimes hassle of using open source software instead of commercial alternatives. I used the open source LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office for more than a year when I was experimenting with Linux (also an enormous digital commons), and I was always worried about compatibility issues because all of my work colleagues used MS Office. I however enjoyed using Linux and I was connected to the computing experience in a way that’s not possible on Windows or Mac. In hindsight, I realize I evolved from being a mere user of Linux to a bit of a commoner. I was particularly proud of figuring how to do a tricky installation of a Linux distribution called Crunchbang and posting the solution on a community forum.

Today Crunchbang does not exist. It was one of the smaller Linux distributions that was backed by one man. He thought it no longer served a purpose, but that didn’t stop some fans from developing some new Linux distributions inspired by the aesthetics of the minimal Crunchbang. All Linux distributions come with an open license that allows for modification and redistribution.

To me this was a lesson that a digital commons does not exist for its own sake, or for the sake of the market or state. A digital commons is mutable yet resilient. It is all about the community and the commoning they do.

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